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Cuba eliminates mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis

Cuban expansion of awareness, testing and treatment helped the nation meet global goals to stop transmission.

By Stephen Feller
Cuba eliminates mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis
Cuba is the first country in the world to effectively eliminate transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child. Photo: Paul Hakimata Photography/Shutterstock

GENEVA, Switzerland, June 30 (UPI) -- Cuba has become the first country in the world to be validated by the World Health Organization for eliminating mother-to-child transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and syphilis.

WHO launched an effort in 2007 to eliminate congenital syphilis and in 2011 launched a plan to eliminate new HIV infections in children, leading to declines in both. Until now, however, no country had effectively eliminated transmission of either virus from mothers to children during birth.

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Women with HIV have a 15 to 45 percent chance of transmitting HIV to their children during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding, however if antiretroviral drugs are given to both mothers and children the risk drops to a little more than 1 percent. In the case of syphilis, diagnosis and treatment during pregnancy eliminates the chance of transmission.

"Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible," said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in a press release. "This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation."

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WHO validation in the case of each virus requires that, for at least two years, 95 percent of women are tested, aware of their status and receiving treatment if they have either HIV or syphilis. Nations also are required for at least one year to have 50 or less cases per 100,000 live births.

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of pregnant women with HIV receiving antiretroviral drugs doubled, so that 7 out of every 10 women who needed the drugs were receiving them. WHO also reports that among the 22 countries which represent the greatest number of new HIV diagnoses, 8 have reduced new infections among children by half, with 4 more approaching that number.

Cuba initiated a program to ensure easier access to prenatal care, HIV and syphilis testing, treatment and additional care after their children are born. The programs, WHO said, were provided as part of Cuba's universal health system, which the director of the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO, said played a role in the Cuban success against transmission of both diseases.

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"Cuba's success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV," said PAHO Director, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne. "Cuba's achievement today provides inspiration for other countries to advance towards elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis".

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